chris wise engineer

What are we really worth?

Every so often someone tries to buy our practice. My response is “why would we want to sell?”, but it begs the question about the intrinsic “worth” of a creative technological endeavour like ours. To test this, while taxiing around the ICE’s London Awards shortlist recently with Mark Whitby I tried to glean how Ramboll had valued Whitby Bird.

In the end Ramboll got a name, an order book, a track record, and a lot of people who might vanish like mist. The classic takeover hitches the old name onto the shirt-tails of the conqueror, and a year or so later quietly drops it. Many take that road, and it’s goodbye Freeman Fox, Alexander Gibb, Oscar Faber, now Whitby Bird…absorbed by the White Young Green’s of the world who thereby define the market worth of their conquests. I eventually guessed £45 million for Whitby Bird, and Mark didn’t deny it. Whatever the figure, he said, lots of people had benefited from the sale. He seemed pretty content that the deal was worth it.

“Market worth” is easy compared with “social worth”. It’s a classic dilemma. Is an engineer or a banker worth more than a doctor or a priest? In the creative industries some justify their vulnerability by going biblical: why gain the whole world but lose your soul? Naturally the artistic opposite is foolhardy if you gain your soul (good) but lose the whole world (bad). You’d live a very short happy life and die in euphoric bankruptcy. Anyway, creative integrity can be sorely tested by the temptation of mountains of wonga.

Unlike Mark, we didn’t sell, but we did recently change the ownership of Expedition Engineering. After a lot of debate, we set up an Employee Benefit Trust which now owns the practice. Shareholders Ed McCann, Sean Walsh and I gave the practice to the Trust, a gift worth about £5 million. We had the devil’s own job with the taxman who is not used to such largesse. But to us it was worth it for the liberation it brings and the faith in our people it repays.

We call it the Useful Simple Trust. Rather wonderfully, there is a legal obligation to define a Trust like this through its altruistic purpose. So, as we value things like education, sustainable working, and contribution to society more than money, we tasked ourselves to blaze a trail in those areas. Trailblazing means we need to be entrepreneurial…so the Trust funds startups; Thinkup in education; MustRD in R+D. And a blazed trail needs to be visible, so Sophie Thomas of Thomas Matthews gave her sustainable graphics practice to the Trust. This was a gift worth several hundred thousand pounds, but to Sophie, it too was worth it. After all, who knows what a graphic designer will come up with having spent a morning with an engineer? (A Times Roman Catapult?) Creatively, it’s very rich.

Back in the ICE taxi with Mark Whitby, we visited a little urban design scheme in Woolwich which, for a few million pounds, has revamped the public spaces in the town, and sorted out the bus-stops. Nothing spectacular, but championed by two men committed to making their community better. Their combined annual salaries are less than a footballer makes in a week but I’d argue that they are worth far more.

Onwards to the Thames Water Ring Main Extensions. “What lies beneath?” was once asked by Hollywood, but Londoners probably care more about John Terry’s love-life than the subterranean infrastructure which keep us all alive. At 80 km long, the Ring Main’s death-defying purpose is to bring clean, healthy drinking water, on tap, to millions. It has great access shafts deep enough to swallow Nelson’s Column, and even the extension has 10km of giant tunnels. Zaha Hadid it ain’t, but I’d wager it’s “worth” much more to an awful lot of people, even if they’ve never heard of it. These tunnels will never receive tourists, yet tourists benefit from them every day. Unsung, they don’t make the news, and the considerable daring in overcoming dangerous ground and subterranean water is invisible. So it is pretty humbling to see the work of those engineers whose quiet skill is so little understood yet is worth so much.

As Van Gogh once lamented: “I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture”. 100 years later his “Dr. Gachet” sold for $82.5 million. Not bad for a few francs-worth of paint…but, just like those unsung designers and engineers, what a shame that no-one realized Vincent’s worth while he was alive. “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”.

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